How George Hotz’s $999 Autonomous Driving Tech Actually Works

And why Porsche allegedly tried to order one.

George Hotz and grey Comma One
George Hotz/Comma.ai

Last week George Hotz—iPhone and Playstation hacker, self-driving car wunderkind and the man who called Mobileye “a failing company”—finally unveiled the Comma One, his $999 aftermarket semi-autonomous driving (AD) system.

Hotz revealed some details at TechCrunch Disrupt SF, and was kind enough to share with me additional exclusive details that I—along with virtually everyone in the automotive world—have been dying to know since last week.

There's a lot of ingenuity and a lot of surprises, that’s for sure.

What is the Comma One?

It’s an aftermarket semi-autonomous driving system that Hotz claims is “on par” with Tesla Autopilot 7, with some features equivalent to the as-yet unreleased Autopilot 8.

“This does not turn your car into a fully autonomous vehicle,” said Hotz. “It’s a fancy cruise control...it will get you from Mountain View to San Francisco without touching the wheel.”

Translation: Like Tesla’s Autopilot—currently the most advanced semi-AD system on the market—the Comma One will likely operate at or just above NHTSA/SAE Level 2, which means it can drive the car under limited conditions, but the “driver” must be ready to take over anytime.

What is the Comma One Hardware?

The Comma One is a plastic box resembling a flattened VHS cassette, and will come in a variety of colors including bright green and slate grey. The box includes a forward facing 16MP camera, a rear facing 8MP camera, both 3G and WiFi, and a 5.5” screen, which Hotz says “is 11.5 inches more compact than a Tesla’s.”

Alex Roy

Comma.ai Chffr running on a Galaxy Edge/Android. Pay no mind to the Escort Max 360 on the left.

What About Software?

The Comma One runs a client of Comma.ai’s Chffr app, whose Apple variant is called Dash. Chffr/Dash records forward-facing video and GPS data, broadcasts it via 3G or Wifi back to Comma’s servers, and uses it to learn how to drive, much like Tesla’s Autopilot/Fleet Learning.

The primary difference? Hotz says Tesla doesn’t record video, although evidence suggests they do capture the final frames before an accident.

The legacy OEMs? None of them crowdsource video, at least not yet. “If we wanted to,” said a source at a major automaker, “we certainly could have done so by now.”

Beta testers (including myself) have been gathering Chffr/Dash data since earlier this year, and the Comma forums are filled with users discussing where and how they’ve accumulated their “Comma points,” which are earned by mileage.

Alex Roy

The Comma.ai Chffr/Dash leaderboard, where I'm currently 7th.

Alex Roy

The Comma.ai Driving Explorer

Whereas the beta testers have been gathering this data merely to qualify to buy one of the early units, I’ve been using it to log my road tests, both for scenery and insurance purposes.

Alex Roy

What about that subscription?

$24 a month keeps your Comma One running and activates the built-in 3G for video upload, which — whatever its data cap — is unlikely to be enough if you do a lot of driving. I know this as a beta-tester who loves using Chffr. Pay your $24, but connect to wifi by any means necessary.

“We hope people have their car in range of wifi,” said Hotz.

I hope so too, because I love being part of a community improving a system — one of the reasons I’ve been running Seti@Home for 8+ years on multiple desktops littering my house — and I know I’m not alone. Maximizing user data flow back to Comma is key to leveraging video capture to improve their driving logic.

Something tells me there’s more to this aspect of the story, because I wouldn't want to have to remove my Comma One once it's installed. I'd probably continue to run Chffr/Dash on a second phone and take that upstairs. But that's just me.

More info as I get it.

What cars does it work on?

Details haven’t been released, but for now it will only work on late model Honda and Acura ILX models equipped with forward facing radar and cameras.

Will it work on other cars?

Yes, but Hotz says “it’s going to be Acura and Honda for a while. We like to focus on one thing.”

How do you install it?

Hotz promised installing the Comma One would be as hard as assembling a piece of Ikea furniture, and it sounds like he was telling the truth.

Apparently, all you have to do is remove your car’s rear-view mirror from its mount, clip the Comma One to the wiring harness, and slide the unit into the rear-view mirror mount.

I will check this for myself the instant I get my hands on one.

“Soon,” says Hotz.

What about my rear-view mirror when I’m driving myself?

No longer necessary. When not in use, the Comma One’s rear-view camera and screen do rear-view mirror duty.

What About Radar?

The Comma One uses the car’s built-in forward facing radar, and doesn’t require any additional hardware beyond the unit itself.

How does it connect to your car?

The single cable connecting the Comma One to the car is sufficient for both power and access to the vehicle’s CANbus, which is the network connecting the myriad hardware in every car to the car itself.

Alex Roy

The Comma One will take over the Acura's cruise control buttons on the right.

How Do You Engage It?

The Comma One uses the car’s pre-existing cruise control buttons on the steering wheel, which have been remapped via the CANbus.

“The system is either on or off,” said Hotz. “We don’t separate this at all. When the system is on, it does steering, brakes and gas.”

How Do You Voluntarily Disengage it?

Touch the gas or the brake, and the system disengages.

Can the car be steered when in Self-Driving mode?

Yes.

What about Involuntary Disengagement Alerts?

This was one of my biggest beefs with the Mercedes unexpectedly silent Drivepilot, and something Tesla’s Autopilot does fairly well. Hotz says there will be both audible and visual alerts, but details have not been 100% finalized.

Will It Automate Lane Changes?

“No,” said Hotz, “that’s a parlor trick. Safe lane changes require a rear-facing radar. Lane changes in a Tesla use the ultrasonic sensors, which are very short range. If you’re doing 60 in a Tesla in the middle lane, and a car is coming up on your left at 90, and you ask Autopilot to change lanes, you’re going to get hit. Ultrasonics really shouldn’t be used over 10mph.”

How Else Does The Comma One Differ From Tesla Autopilot?

“We’re already doing a couple of things with radar that [Tesla] has put into Autopilot 8,” said Hotz. “Tesla is beating us at Fleet Learning, but that will change.”

Hotz, of course, is referring to Tesla’s 100,000+ users, all of whom are gathering data via Fleet Learning, whether on Autopilot or not. Chffr/Dash users currently number just over 1000.

“At beta,” said Hotz, ”[the Comma One] won’t be quite what Autopilot is. Tesla is using GPS-based polynomials, but once we add lane-fusing polynomials…”

In other words, if Comma is gathering video data and Tesla isn’t, Hotz is betting that a smaller pool of users gathering video will eventually prove as valuable — if not moreso — than Tesla’s currently much larger pool in improving the system.

Assuming Tesla’s upcoming “Tesla Vision” doesn’t do video, which it probably will, given that Musk tried to hire Hotz, and the subsequent Tesla split from camera-supplier Mobileye.

"I use the word Mobileye," said Hotz, "to describe any low quality camera device."

Whatever Comma’s growth rate, in a market where the OEM’s aren’t admitting to crowdsourcing GPS or video data, Comma is on the Tesla side of the data collection fence, where Fleet Learning has already proven its vast superiority over hard-coded systems like Mercedes’ Drivepilot.

For anyone who wants to be part of a transportation sea-change and can’t afford a Tesla, buying a Comma One is far cheaper and more subversive than buying a Bolt.

Whoa. THAT’s a Great Idea

If I were Hotz, the Comma Two should work on the Bolt, and render the Cruise acquisition worthless.

When will deliveries begin?

Hotz claims limited deliveries will begin by the end of the 2016, starting with beta testers who live in the Bay area, have access to a compatible car, and have accumulated 2000+ Comma points. I currently have 10k+ points, and am 7th on the leaderboard. If I don’t get one of the very first units, you should never read my column again.

Oh yeah...Hotz claims Porsche called and tried to order one of the first units. He asked them how many Comma points they had. That was the last he heard of them.

Allegedly.

Alex Roy is an Editor-at-Large for The Drive, author of The Driver, and set the 2007 Transcontinental “Cannonball Run” Record in 31 hours & 4 minutes. You may follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.